Opportunities and Challenges facing Muslim Communities: The European and the North American Experien

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This report summarises the discussions held at the EPC on the “Opportunities and Challenges facing Muslim Communities: The European and the North American Experience”.

Opportunities and Challenges facing Muslim Communities: The European and the North American Experience

In cooperation with its strategic partner, the King Baudouin Foundation (KBF), the European Policy Centre held a Dialogue entitled “Opportunities and Challenges facing Muslim Communities: The European and the North American Experience,” as part of its three-year work programme on this subject. A question and answer session followed. This is not an official record of the proceedings and specific comments are not necessarily attributable.

The panel discussion featured Dr Jocelyne Cesari, Principal Research Fellow at the National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris and Professor at Harvard University, Denise Helly, Researcher at the Institut National de Recherche Scientific, Canada, Saqeb Mueen, Secretary of the Public Affairs Committee, Muslim Council of Britain, and Khallad Swaid, President, Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisation. EPC Political Director, John Palmer, chaired the meeting.

Panellists agreed that the terrorist attacks in New York and Madrid had heightened fears and misconceptions of Muslims and their faith and had led to a curtailing of existing civil liberties on both sides of the Atlantic. The speakers were particularly critical of the media, who, through inadequate objective information or other preconceived notions potrayed Muslims in a specific light, both in Europe and in North America. Educating people more widely about the contributions Muslims had made to the existing cultural and scientific life in Europe and Northamerica – beginning as early as primary education – could lead to increased mutual understanding and appreciation and prevent existing predjudices from taking hold in other generations. Integration, the panel agreed was a bi-directional process and Muslim communities, for the largest part, were willing to engage in the necessary dialogue.

Introducing the panelists, John Palmer stressed the important role in the historical evolution of European civilization which Muslim scholars and Islamic societies had played. The EPC and KBF were working on a multi-annual programme, which would cover not only the better integration of Muslims in the European Union but also international issues raised in the context of relations between the EU and Islamic countries. The dialogue meeting was designed to launch a review of the issues affecting integration.

Counter-terrorism measure and their effects on Muslim communities

Dr. Jocelyne Cesari outlined some of the effects counter-terrorism measures have had on Muslim communities in the US and in Europe. Following the 9/11 attacks, US President Bush released the “Patriot Act,” aimed at detecting any terrorist activity and preventing further attacks. One facet of the Patriot Act is about controlling immigration into the US. The restriction of immigration from countries like Iraq and Pakistan had been part of this initial plan, which had now been extended to all Muslim countries, she said. Needless to say, this process has had severe effects on people wanting to migrate to the US. The second facet of this legislation, was the control of all Islamic activities at the domestic level, without any real criteria to determine what constituted terrorism, she said. “People can be put into jail without knowing for how long,” she noted, calling the system “institutionalised discrimination.”

The majority of Muslims in the US were relatively economically well off and participated actively in their communities, but all previous work had been broken down following 9/11. Prior to 9/11, US public opinion had not really taken notice of Muslims in society, but rather perceived the different ethnic backgrounds. This had now changed and Muslims as a group were regarded with increasing hostility. Many America n Muslims felt like living in a “virtual concentration camp,” she said. American Muslims were often surprised to learn about the pressures European Muslims faced and how similar they were to their situation.

She further stressed that Islam had always been demonised in European foreign policy; this goes back to the hostage crisis in Iran. Looking at colonial times, one could even identify a certain image of Islam, Dr. Cesari said. “There is a European tendency to equate Islam with fanaticism, something which was already present in Voltaire’s Mahomet, ” she said. “Every EU government will get the Muslims it deserves,” she continued, urging European governments to take action to change this generally negative attitude towards Muslims and Islam.

There were two ways to react to this situation, she said. One was to accept it and the other was to resist these tendencies. There was a big question about the Salafist groups in Europe, who had built their position on Islam versus the West. They had no interest in participating in society or political activities, but rather wanted to live in a parallel society, she said. The more constructive way would be to build up legitimacy, and give Muslims the opportunity to abide both by the rules of their faith and be a good European or US citizen at the same time. This constructive approach needed guidance, but there was a lack of religious authority to lead this process, she said.

The future approach

Dr. Cesari emphasized the ongoing US on how to build a common Muslim identity. US Muslims were trying to find a ‘flag’ around which to rally, she said. The rise in discrimination had pushed many people towards a unified affinity to Islam. In Europe’s “old Muslim countries” like France, Germany, UK and Belgium one could see a new generation of young Muslims using Islam as a unifying identity to help build a Muslim community.

The Canadian experience

Denise Helly noted that Canada had also seen an increase in hostility since 9/11. There are about 570.000 Muslims in Canada today, with many immigrants from Pakistan and an increased draw for migrants from the Middle East. Most of the offences against Muslims and Islam were attacks on mosques. While no attacks were directed against people, discrimination was nonetheless rife in the employment field. In December 2001 the Canadian government had adopted an anti-terrorism law, which required the amendment of 22 existing laws. Much of this mirrored legislative activity in the US. These changes had warranted increased observation of the Muslim communities, greater policy powers, investigation of individual Imams and greater questioning of asylum seekers on activities in their communities. This had resulted in ethnic profiling and strict investigation of people entering Canada, she said.

Ms Kelly said that her impression of the press corps in Canada was that it was in favour of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon policies and against Islam, which had led to very negative press coverage of Muslims. US influence had also been strong, despite many Canadians’ criticism of the Bush administration. Overall, Canadian Muslims did not feel discriminated against in their daily lives, except in the workplace, she said. Turning to religious practice and its influence on Muslims, she said that Imams in Canada were generally not fundamentalist. There were some Wahhabists but these remained mostly silent, she said. The changes that had affected the Canadian Muslim community had led to an upsurge in civic action, though, with at least one demonstration per week on issues ranging from Iraq to the expulsion of specific individuals on suspicions of terrorist activity.

An EU Member State perspective: Germany and the UK

Khallad Swaid spoke on the situation of Muslims in Germany and noted that while th ere were some people in the government and the media that took a positive approach towards Islam, many did not. Journalists writing on Islam and Muslims often did not have the necessary knowledge and understanding of the subject to ask the right questions. Clearly, the role of the government was to protect its society, but he was adamant that this should not be done on the back of Muslim citizens. “If we do not create one society we will have separate societies, trying to live under one roof in one country, which would be bad for the future of Europe,” he said. The overall attitude toward Muslims was rather negative, yet he found it hard to understand how a religion could be seen as a threat to democracy, human rights and to Europe.

Germany had seen an increase in assaults on women wearing the hijab, while mosques were regularly searched by police who were disrespectful of its character as a place of worship and dignity. “Unjustified antiterrorism measures will lead to a greater radicalisation of young Muslims in Europe,” he said. “We needed a dialogue between the different members of society and we should also engage radicals in this dialogue.” He added, that the best way to do so would be through Muslims who are in favour of integration.

Saqeb Mueen presented a view on this topic from the UK. He said that Muslims had been present in the UK for over 100 years. There were now 1.5 million Muslims in the UK, with the number of converts increasing, he said. Terrorism affected Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and he underlined that Muslims had not been spared from attacks because they were part of society like any other ethnic or social group. “An attack on Britain is an attack on British Muslims too,” he said. Anti-terrorism legislation needed to be balanced and to be successful, anti-terrorism initiatives needed the support of the Muslim community.

Out of the people arrested under the new terrorism act, 51% had been released without charges and only 2% of the convictions had been upheld. Furthermore, there was a 41% increase in Asians being ‘stopped and searched’ and there were many cases of people being detained at airports. There had been many arrests within Muslim communities, but few actual charges made. Overall, the use of draconian powers by the police had created a climate of fear, which had been maintained by the press, he said.

He described three concerns about the new laws: firstly, the government had gotten the balance wrong and exercised too much of a free hand; secondly, the implementation of the laws had fuelled the already existing anxieties of Muslims; and thirdly, he noted terrorists would win if civilized countries dismantled their own civil liberties. Despite this criticism, he did note that there had been a degree of positive change over the past months, including more interaction with Muslim organizations and a greater sensitivityby policy and other authorities during search operations and the like. However, this fell far short of had to be done. The Muslim Council of Britain had sent letters to all mosques in the UK asking leaders to speak out against terrorism. “Muslims, after all, are part of society,” he concluded.

Cultural and religious aspects of integration

Jocelyne Cesari stated that the political framework of individual EU countries influenced integration. There were different ways of defining citizenship and greatly varying secular arrangements. Europe was the only part of the world that was generally hostility towards religion, as proven by the results of the World Values Survey on religion conducted in 2003, she said. This particularity about Europe had to be taken into account when addressing the issue of integrating Muslims into society, she said. The State needed partners in the Muslims communities communicate with and there was pressure on them to create forms of Muslim representation, she said . This was different in the US, which did not look for a chief Imam.

Additionally, there was growing confusion between the ethnicity and religion. Most discourse on Muslims was shaped by culture and ethnicity. For example, forced marriages, which had caused so much uproar in Europe were not imposed by Islam, but rather part of a specific culture. She encouraged Muslim leaders to clearly decide what should be taken into account when building religious communities in Europe. The popular perception of a linkage between minorities, poverty and religion had to end. The rate of unemployment of young Muslims was increasing and was double of that of non-Muslims. Many young people had made that linkage for themselves and gotten themselves into thinking they were deprived because were Muslim. It was perhaps no surprise then, that policy-makers linked this to Islam, she said.

Saqeb Mueen emphasized that in Britain there was increasing Muslim participation in politics with two members of Parliament with a Muslim background. What was needed was encouragement from both sides: the UK Parliament and Muslim organisations.

Denise Helly said that Muslims needed to be given a voice in the established political parties and would have to be given a chance to lobby. She was equally adamant on dual citizenship and according migrants a right to vote. “The Canadian idea of multiculturalism is based on this full, legitimate integration.”

Khallad Swaid focused on three core points in his brief presentation under this topic: the increase of objective knowledge on Islam and the Muslim faith, the question of citizenship and the development of Islam within European culture. Popular misconceptions about Islam could be eradicated through education and the increase of knowledge on Islam’s contribution to the intellectual and cultural wealth of the Western world. Often, he noted, the 1500-year history of Islam in Europe was treated with little more than two pages in German school books, accompanied by what he perceived as obviously xenophobic images. “The achievements and contributions of Muslim society in Europe must be recognized and become part of the mainstream,” he said. “If we show and inform children about these, then we can prevent misconceptions.”  

On citizenship, he noted that in the wider process of redefining what it was to be a European, Muslims had to brought into the wider discussion. This would be fruitful both for Muslims and other Europeans. The question of religious freedom was also linked to this. According citizenship rights to Muslims would make them at once part of the electorate and eligible to stand for election in most European countries. In those countries, in which this was already possible, authorities should let democracy run its course and not interfere internally, if a free vote produced a potentially unwanted result, he said, with a particular nod to the military and possibly French-encouraged interference in the Algerian elections.

Finally, developing a European Islam – or, as he much preferred to call it – an Islam with a distinct Europeanism to it, would be possible only by recognizing the cultural and educational activities of Muslims officially. Universities run by Muslims in the UK and France needed to have their diplomas fully recognized by these respective countries. “The issue of justice is crucial both for internal European politics in the Member States, but also for the Union’s external policy, with respect to Iraq, Palestine and Kashmir,” he said. The same “yardsticks” and measurements applied to these conflicts needed guide the fight against terrorism. His organization, the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Students, aimed to act as a bridge-builder between the West and the Muslim world. While European Muslims could serve important conduit functions to the Muslim world, “there has to be a two-way will ingness to engage,” he concluded.

In conclusion the chairman, John Palmer, said that much further discussion was needed around the issues of modernity, Europe’s secular values and the traditions of the faith based communities.

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